This weekend saw the UK release of Avengers Assemble and the official start of blockbuster season 2012. It could be a vital one for Hollywood. Joss Whedon’s superhero mash-up is one of four massive franchise films coming out this year, with Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Batman swansong The Dark Knight Rises to follow. A prequel, a reboot and a sequel, the films themselves are hardly breaking new ground, but the marketing campaigns behind them most definitely are. 2012 is the year that Hollywood has truly embraced the power of social media – and so far, social media has embraced Hollywood.
The campaign for Prometheus has been by far the most innovative and popular. Along with the standard Twitter feed and Facebook page, the film’s studio, Fox, have ploughed a huge amount of time, effort and money into the production of several viral videos that have spread across social media channels like wildfire. They’ve also whipped up a storm of activity around the release of the film’s trailers, previewing excerpts of the ads and showcasing exclusive interviews with director Ridley Scott. This continued on Sunday night when Channel 4 aired the premiere of the latest promo together with a hashtag viewers could use to discuss it on Twitter. Half an hour later another advert appeared, this one featuring a (rather small) selection of the tweets.
Batman and Spider-Man are also taking advantage of social media, though their campaigns are less innovative. The Dark Knight Rises got out of the traps first, starting its viral campaign back in May 2011 (fourteen months before the release of the film) with a mechanism that allowed users to unveil the first image of the film’s villain Bane through Tweets. Promotional packages to magazines and websites, and a micro-site offering tickets to worldwide sneak previews of the film’s opening sequence, have followed, both gaining the movie further online exposure. Sony have done the same with The Amazing Spider-Man, with screenings of key scenes taking place across the globe in February 2012. Viral videos, viral websites and frequent Tweets have also been part of the strategy and they’ve all been geared at not just promoting the film but actively involving the audience in that promotion.
It’s a smart move. Over the last decade, film fans have turned to message boards, blogs and fansites to find the latest news on their favourite upcoming blockbusters. Every part of the film-making process is dissected on these sites, from merchandise and posters to shots of the actors on set and snatches of the script. Obviously studios don’t want those things getting out (not without official approval anyway), so they’ve got creative in an attempt to take back control of brand awareness. The viral campaigns they’re creating are giving fans an idea of the content of the film, but aren’t actually showing them much of what will be in the finished product. Entertained, fans then take to Facebook and Twitter to discuss it, thereby performing the same function they did on the fansites and messageboards, but with official blessing and on an even wider scale. The living room, and not the boardroom, is now the apex of movie marketing.
Where exactly will the socialisation of cinema stop though? This week, David Lieberman of Deadline New York asked if it was time for theatre owners to let audiences text during films and, presumably, that would include allowing them to use social networks too. The article was inspired by a debate held at last week’s high-profile CinemaCon event, where President and Chairman of Filmed Entertainment at IMAX Greg Foster said: “We want them [teenagers] to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.” Younger generations “feel handcuffed” at the movies, Foster added, and removing those shackles could help bump up attendances. He may be right.
Control is key in the digital age. Control over what we create, what we consume, and how we react to what we consume. In seconds, we can jump onto our computer to see the latest movie trailer, complain about the latest act of Hollywood stupidity or discuss a film we’re watching at home. It’s this sense of control that is making viral marketing and streaming so enticing and the prospect of actually going to the cinema an awful lot less enticing. Who wants to sit silently in a dark room for two hours when you can watch a movie through your Netflix account, crunch on as much noisy popcorn as you like and use your phone to your heart’s content? In the age of Facebook, cinema is one of the last truly anti-social networks.
It won’t be for much longer though; indeed the short, sad road to Social Cinema is already being paved. Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald’s new film, Marley, has recently broken the mould by streaming on Facebook concurrently with its theatrical release, and the traditional distribution schedule has long since been altered, with some films debuting at the cinema on a Friday and then hitting DVD the following Monday. Are such solutions the future of cinema? Will we start turning to Facebook to watch the latest releases? If we do, what for the cinemas themselves? Will they become so underused that they start closing down and eventually die out altogether?
It’s a dramatic and gladly unimaginable scenario. Even in the world of social media, smartphones and streaming, the silver screen is too good to resist and studios and cinema chains know that. So they’ll simply adapt. It’d begin slowly at first, with special ‘Text and Tweet’ screenings, but eventually evolve to include in-screen Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines. Teenagers would get their sense of control back, cinema owners would get their customers back and movie studios would get their profit margins back. Hardcore cineastes would be put out, of course, but they’re few in number and less likely to spend money on lucrative snacks and drinks. In other words, they’re disposable.
I count myself as one of those cineastes and obviously I think Social Cinema is an utterly risible idea that should be stamped out immediately. But it won’t be and it would work. Even I, despite my resistance, have taken part in film-based tweetalongs (at home and with movies I’ve already seen, mind you) and, in fact, I’m writing this while watching a film and occasionally commenting about it on Facebook. I also watched on Thursday night as Twitter users discussed the early screenings of Avengers Assemble. These tweets dominated my feed – and they were all made after the film was over. Imagine how many more would be sent if in-cinema mobile use was permitted. Film tweets would be as ubiquitous as TV show tweets are and instead of just discussing the film in general, users could highlight particularly exciting moments. “Thor just PWNED Loki!”, “Hulk is totes amazeballs!”. It’d be the death of the cinema (and the English language), but also its potential rebirth.
The internet has shown film studios a new way to make their product a must-see, now the challenge is to get the audience off the internet and make it a must-see at the cinema. Social cinema, painfully, shamefully, may well be the answer.